The Value of Space

bramhall-world-subways-runningSpace–not the kind Gene Roddenberry wrote about, but the kind we all know we need to have to get along–is important. As I enjoy my coffee and solitude this morning, the subject weighing heavily on my mind is peace: world peace; community peace; school peace; family peace; peace of mind. Recent turbulent conversations in my community over mascots and apartment zoning along with an outbreak of several fights at my son’s high school yesterday make me ask what are the conditions that lead to peace? Space, I think. If people have space, there is peace. I begin thinking about maps and this leads me, eventually and unexpectedly, to the Tower of Babel. [Warning: The following narrative is a wandering illustration of how my mind works. Don’t try to figure it out—I am a right-brained thinker—but hang with me.]

I confess I am horrible at geography. I was very good at coloring and labeling the maps in 7th grade, but if I had to draw a world map from memory, Africa would be in the wrong proximity to Europe, Europe would be much larger than it actually is and Norway, Sweden and Finland would be too small and floating out somewhere near Greenland. Your guess is probably better than mine about where Thailand is located. Rick and Bubba, local radio morning-show hosts, play a game called “Country Song or It Ain’t.” Well, if they changed the game to “Country or It Ain’t,” I would miss on Svalbard every time and twice on Sunday. (I know you are all now doing an internet search on that one.)

I spread my world map out on the floor. I bought it once on a whim because I didn’t want to be embarrassed when my children asked me where South America was located. I am just kidding, of course. I do know where South America is located–somewhere down below North America…well, hello, Central America! I am noticing random things like Canada is really huge. (Why is NASA talking about missions to Mars to form colonies–all the extra people can just all go to Canada where everyone can have two acres and a mule.) I find it marvelous that people ended up in their own little acre, speaking a unique language and enjoying particular customs. My eye settles on the map region that is considered to be the “cradle of civilization”–ancient Mesopotamia.

I pull out my Bible and flip to the section with the header “Table of Nations”–the section that precedes the Tower of Babel story. To place it in context, the Tower of Babel occurs right after Noah built an ark, according to God’s instructions, so his family could survive the watery holocaust. Genesis 10, the passage just following the Flood account, lists the sons of Noah and their descendants. From the site of the ark’s landing, Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, Japheth, and their descendants embarked on the monumental task of repopulating the earth, settling in Italy, Turkey, Libya, Egypt and the Middle East.

The center of this activity is the land of ancient Mesopotamia. I picture Noah and his sons and their extended families finding their space in this region. Some time thereafter, they all got together at a family reunion. Over fried chicken, iced tea and cake, one of the relatives had a grand idea: “Hey, why don’t we build a tower that reaches all the way to heaven? Then we can all live in the same place, in this grand apartment building, and all our children can play together.” Thank goodness no one had yet thought to enact zoning ordinances or all their aspirations would have been for nothing.

The Babel Towers project was doomed from the start. I can’t imagine I would ever think, “I wish I had a house big enough for all the relatives to come live with me.” People need space to live peacefully. Commonality and unity are good, as long as you have separate living quarters. Fences make good neighbors; so do estate lots. If my neighbor decides to keep a goat, I am okay with that as long as I don’t have to see, hear or smell the goat.

As I research the matter further, I am surprised to discover the ancient Mesopotamians were the first to practice urban planning. There is evidence that scribes planned houses for the nobility and that common styles were adopted to maintain aesthetics and architectural unity. The Biblical account mentions they used bricks and tar as building materials. The Tower of Babel would likely have been in the style of a ziggurat, which is a pyramid-type construction similar to other Mesopotamian buildings such as the “House of the Seven Guides of Heaven and Earth” (not to be confused with the House of the Seven Gables) and “House of the Link between Heaven and Earth.” It occurs to me that people, even from early times, had to make plans for living together peacefully and in harmony.

God did not like the idea of the tower. He said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” [Genesis 11:5-6] I imagine one bricklayer says to the other, “Gib mir die Ziegel“ [“Hand me that brick”]; the other guy gives him a puzzled look and says, “Che nel mondo stai parlando?” [“What in the world are you talking about?”] They part ways and look for someone who speaks their language so they can go to lunch. The Bible says, “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” People had space.

For me, there are two takeaways from this story. One, people live together more peacefully when they speak the same language. This includes politics, religion and which team you cheer for on Saturday. We naturally communicate better and live peacefully with people we understand. Two, if we don’t understand each other, then having personal space is a good thing. This is why North and South Korea have the DMZ and the Federation and Romulins have the Neutral Zone.

From our experience as children, we understand the need to have our own space. Anyone who has ever been on a family vacation in an RV will tell you that cramped quarters lead to disharmony. We all have been on the trip where our mother drew an imaginary line in the backseat: “Now, don’t either of you cross this line or you will get it.” I was never sure exactly what it was, but this was enough to get my attention. This statement was always followed by “the look.”

We see the adverse effects of cramped space on airplanes. A USA Today article recounted the story, “A key incident focused attention on [airline] seat spacing in August, when passengers got into a fight when a traveler used a Knee Defender, a device that prevents a seat from reclining.” (I don’t know what a Knee Defender is, but I am going to get me one of those.) One airline attendant said, “It’s getting to the point where the preflight safety videos need an additional warning: Be nice to your neighbor”– well, that or put more space between the seats.

In the book School Violence Intervention: A Practical Handbook, the author says, “The larger the school, the higher its per capita violence rate is likely to be… Crowding is a particularly salient school violence correlate, as aggressive behavior, in fact, occurs more frequently in more crowded school locations (stairways, hallways and cafeterias).” At my son’s school, three of the most recent fights have occurred in the school cafeteria, which is very crowded. More space would be a deterrent to school-related violence.

While there are certainly other factors that contribute to positive neighborly relations, I believe space is a powerful peacemaker. We should be sure to give our neighbors and our children the space they need. We don’t have to, as a friend once said, “get all up into everybody’s business.” We don’t all have to be alike or speak the same language, as long as we have the space in which we can do our own thing without someone posting a comment about it on Facebook. Space is good. Crowded quarters are not good. Give everyone the personal space to which they are entitled.


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